Sima surprised herself by blushing at the round perfection of the young woman’s breasts. For thirty-five years, after all, breasts had been her business: she knew the slight curve of the preteen breast, its nipple rigid when unveiled in the cool air of her basement shop; the engorged, aching breasts of pregnant women, skin shiny and striped from stretch; the parchment breasts of the elderly, liver-spotted, soft with down; she knew breasts with pink nipples, olive nipples, brown nipples; nipples pushed in and pulled out, tiny as dimes, large as the ringed stain of a coffee cup; she knew heavy breasts on thin women and thin breasts on heavy women; breasts 28-A, 52-K, and breasts with a cup size between them. She even, of course, knew the knotted red scar of the breast that was no longer there, the twisting keloid marker of what science had stolen away.
But this young Israeli in tight jeans and platform sandals, slightly worn, revealing fuchsia toenails—in all those years Sima had never seen breasts so beautiful as hers.
Sima thrilled to the swirl of the nipple, the soft shell of the skin. She remembered eighth-grade geometry: planting the sharp point of the compass on a friend’s notebook and, with the stubbed yellow pencil carefully belted in, tracing perfect circles of friendship. This girl’s breasts, Sima was sure, would be 360 degrees by the pencil’s lead trace.
“I brought you a few to try,” Sima said, approaching the dressing room. The girl stood in the center, the curtain—orange cloth, grayed at the edges—pulled to one side. It was a large space, big enough for five women at a time to preen, choose: a bench on one side with hooks above, a rectangle of carpet (slightly frayed, lavender wool unraveling) below, a wide mirror angled against the back wall. Sima dangled three bras, each a shade of beige, before her. “See which you like.”
The girl eyed the bras suspiciously, held one against herself—thick, with a high, wide cut—so that her breasts pushed through the satin, frowned at her reflection in the mirror.
“Do you have anything sexy?” she asked.
Sima forced herself to carry on the usual conversation. “You like lacy? Demi?” She saw herself in the mirror behind the girl, gray hair pulled into a tight bun, rounded body all in black. The old witch in the fairytale, Sima thought, selling apples to a young beauty.
“Doesn’t matter, just so long as my boyfriend will like it. Not that he’d notice—men just like to take them off, no?”
Sima smiled. Years in the basement bra shop had taught her the ease of a conversation teasing men. With knowing looks and careful shakes of the head her customers commiserated with one another, complained about them: their stupidity, their cheapness, their emotional distance; their inability to remember birthdays and anniversaries, the location of their own kitchen appliances, the day to pick their suits up from the dry cleaner.
“My Lev,” Sima said, “doesn’t even know how to tell one bra from another. You think he pays attention? I’ve had this business for three decades, and we’ve been married, what, forty-six years? Ten dollars he couldn’t even tell you what underwire does.”
The girl laughed, revealing a smile made more beautiful, Sima thought, by the slight gap between her two front teeth. “Forty-six years is a long time. Mazel tov.”
Sima shrugged. “People act like being married a long time is some big accomplishment. Let me tell you, it’s the easiest thing in the world. We married young, and that was that.”
She made a brisk motion with her hand, as if smoothing the covers over a bed. “Now,” Sima said, reaching for the bras she’d brought the girl, “What did you say your name was?”
“Timna, I’ll bring you something special, yeah? To make his jaw drop.”
Sima closed the dressing-room curtain and walked behind the counter. Three shelves stretched ten feet across, each shelf filled with boxes, each box filled with bras. Sima never spent a cent on advertising and never had to. Though the dressing room rarely filled to capacity, she kept busy enough that her legs ached each evening from too many trips up and down the stepladder, each in pursuit of the perfect fit. Sima’s regular customers, and almost all her customers became regulars, would enter the store already pulling off their coats, unbuttoning their starched blouses. “Something for my cousin’s wedding, to keep my tummy in and these” (a quick shove to the large breasts) “up while I dance.”
“For my daughter, for her bas mitzvah. Can you believe? Seems just yesterday I used to rest her stroller behind the counter.”
“Something simple. Cotton.”
“Something lacy. Black.”
“Something with underwire.”
Sima’s wasn’t the only hidden business in the neighborhood: Farrah sold purses and shoes, Shoshana designed stationery and invitations, Gussie carried wigs and head scarves, Bernie and Ida Neuman’s basement was filled with suits for boys. A secret downtown hidden beneath the red and orange brick two-story homes of Boro Park, Brooklyn.
Those who didn’t know Sima stood awkwardly for only a moment. In a glance she could see their size, the back and the cup combined. “Thirty-six-D” she’d say, and, pointing to the dressing-room curtain, “Over there.” In vain the women protested, “But I’m a thirty-four. I’ve always been—” “You’ve always been wearing the wrong size,” Sima told them, and when on her advice they slipped back on their shirts to evaluate the shape a new bra gave, they inevitably agreed. “Isn’t that something?” the women said, smiling at the high curve in the mirror, “After all these years.”
“How long have you been in Brooklyn, Timna?” Sima called when she’d found what she wanted, let the box lids fall to the floor in her eagerness.
“Only one week. I’m staying with some cousins while I wait for my boyfriend to finish the army, and then we’re driving to San Francisco.”
“A beautiful city,” Sima told her, though it had been decades since she’d been there. As she hopped off the stepladder she felt her ankle curl beneath her: a spot of pain and then gone. She paused a moment, regained her composure. She couldn’t help but be excited to fit this girl, she told herself; if she thrilled to imagine the smooth lay of her bras on Timna’s skin, it was no more unnatural than a dentist admiring a flawless arch of pearl-white teeth.
Sima handed Timna two bras, the kind she thought of as most wild—crimson lace on one, the other, black, cut low and wide for maximum cleavage. She pulled the curtain closed while Timna tried on the crimson, waited until she heard the usual sounds—a step backwards, a turn to the side—that signaled readiness.
“Everything okay?” Sima asked.
Timna opened the curtain. “What do you think?”
Sima took her in. Timna looked like the women on the covers of drugstore romances: cream-smooth skin arched over full curves, the lace covering just enough to promise removal. Sima felt something like a sigh inside, swallowed it down.
“Lucky for me,” she told Timna, forcing herself to do what she always did—spread a hand against the cup to check the shape, smooth the fabric— “this bra looks like it was made for you. My seamstress isn’t in today and I hate sewing, so here I was praying—let it fit just right.”
“And it does?”
“Like a glove. Just a little adjustment—” she tightened the strap on Timna’s left shoulder, her fingers almost trembling to touch a dark brown beauty mark perfectly placed on the soft slope between neck and shoulder—”and voilà. Try it with your T-shirt,” Sima told her, stepping back, “and you’ll see how nice it fits.” She looked away as Timna slipped on her shirt, the act of dressing somehow even more intimate than that of undressing. “Of course,” Sima told her, as Timna pivoted lightly before the mirror, admiring, “the crimson is a little dark for that lavender shirt, but with a dark sweater or dress, or—” Sima paused—”to really impress this boyfriend, on its own—”
Sima colored: it was a joke she’d normally never dare, and certainly not with a new customer. She swallowed, desperate for something to say—Israel, she thought, ask something about Israel—but Timna laughed, said, “Absolutely,” and Sima grinned wide like she’d guessed the right answer: what was behind which door.
Timna closed her eyes, clasped her hands together, and reached into a stretch. Sima watched as she raised her arms above her head and breathed in deep, her whole body supple and soft as a child’s. She gazed at Timna: her eyelids the palest shade of purple, her lips parted slightly, bright with gloss, her neck soft white, arched toward the ceiling, and her breasts—Sima couldn’t resist glancing at Timna’s breasts, the full round of them waiting perfect beneath the lavender tee, the crimson bra.
Timna opened her eyes.
Sima looked quickly away but knew, by the catch in Timna’s breath, that she’d been caught.
“So try the black,” Sima said, speaking quickly as she curled her hands into fists, her nails pressing half-moon wrinkles into the soft of her palm, “hopefully it’ll fit just as well. You’re staying somewhere nearby?”
“A few blocks away.” Timna’s voice was flat; Sima couldn’t read it.
“That’s good,” Sima told her, “because if it needs adjustments you just leave it here, pick it up in a day or two.” She drew the curtain closed between them; spoke quickly to hide her shame—how could she have looked, how could she have been caught? So many years, she thought, so very many years, and never before an unwanted glance. She kept talking, hoping to distract. “She might actually be moving—my seamstress. If you ask me, it sounds just terrible: one of these depressed towns in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York, with nothing but jails and gas stations for miles, but she has this idea that the country is better than the city, so—”
“Oh, I could always do the sewing myself,” Timna said. “I’ve never altered a bra, but I make my own clothes sometimes—”
“Yeah?” Sima touched her collarbone, relieved Timna was speaking to her, hadn’t run out of the shop in horror, disgusted by the lecherous old woman in the basement. “If you make your own clothes, you could handle this, for sure.” She glanced at the empty seamstress’s table—the sewing machine unattended atop the old wooden school desk, a white scarf abandoned on the back of an olive chair. “We just do basic stuff—take in the sides, shorten or lengthen straps—”
The doorbell rang as two teenagers entered the shop, Hadassah’s daughter with a friend Sima didn’t recognize. Sima waved to them, grateful for the interruption. She spoke loudly so Timna would overhear, “What can I get you? What do you need?” eager to prove herself the devoted saleslady, serious about fit.
“My mom said you carry yoga clothes now,” Hadassah’s daughter said, and Sima nodded yes, of course, and helped them pick out a few outfits, although she knew it was only a matter of time before one or the other asked, as if the thought had just occurred to her, to try on a bra-and-panty set, or silk pajamas, or a Japanese kimono slit deep. In the end they’d only buy the yoga outfit—where would they hide such fancy lingerie, and what trouble if it was found—but Sima didn’t mind the dress-up, knowing they were literally trying on what they took to be the future, not suspecting what Sima knew: real women, tired and busy and recalling with longing their own lost teenage bodies, usually bought to contain rather than expose.
Hadassah’s daughter and her friend followed Sima to the dressing room, each carrying a tank top with matching pants. Timna opened the curtain as they approached.
“I think I like it even better than the last,” she told Sima, placing her hands on her hips before the mirror. “What do you think?”
“Look at that,” Sima said, shaking her head, “again like it was made for you.” She allowed herself a quick glance before stepping aside so the teenagers could enter, noticing how they looked at Timna and turned away, Timna both embodying and making unattainable their own ideas of womanhood. Sima checked the fit and had Timna once again slip on her T-shirt; both satisfied, Timna dressed and followed Sima to the counter while the girls changed. “Sixty one and sixty three,” Sima told her, entering the numbers on an old cash register, “with a ten percent discount is one eleven sixty—”
Timna bit her lower lip. “I swear, I could go broke on bras.”
“Well, we all have our weaknesses.”
Timna smiled, pulled a credit card and a jar of lip gloss out of her purse. “Want some?” she asked, as she smoothed the gloss along her lips with her pinky finger, “It’s mango-flavored.”
Sima dipped her finger into the jar as Timna had, dotted the gloss lightly on her lips and smacked them together, evaluating the strange taste. “Nice,” Sima told her, aware of a spice around her mouth, a slight heat that lingered even as she waved goodbye, watched Timna disappear up the steps.
Copyright © 2008 by Ilana Stanger-Ross from Sima’s Undergarments for Women. Reprinted by permission of Overlook Press.
Ilana Stanger-Ross is the author of a novel, Sima’s Undergarments for Women. Formally the Senior Writer for The Art Biz.com, Ilana's interviews with visual artists and art professionals and her articles about the art business are now online at The New York Foundation for the Arts. Her stories have been published in Lilith Magazine, The Red Rock Review, and The Bellevue Review.